Gary White has known nothing but the railroad for the last 20 years of his life.
A lifelong Waxahachie resident, White said he was born into a family of hard workers. He said his father did factory work while he was growing up, while his grandfather was a home builder.
When he got older, White said he used to work at a local manufacturing facility before a friend introduced him to life on the railroad. Since then, he works night shifts as a qualified conductor and locomotive engineer for the Dallas, Garland and Northeastern railroad.
“I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life,” White said of his old manufacturing job. “Railroads have been around for a long time. This country was built on the railroad.”
White said that when he first started his railroad career in Jan. 1999, he had to go through training in a classroom to learn all of the rules of the railroad. He said employees had to score above a 90 on all of their exams before they could qualify to work out in the field.
White explained after passing the exams, employees trained with railroad crews as an extra and were shown how to switch and move cars on the tracks. When workers are ready, a certified locomotive engineer does a check ride and reviews their performance for certification.
A worker can choose to either work on the ground or up in the engine after they become certified.
White said it usually takes a year and a half to three years to become a certified locomotive engineer. White said he became certified 10 months after he was hired.
“We were very short-handed back then,” White explained. “There was a lot of turnover in the railroad industry. There’s a lot of rules they have to follow up there.”
White said one of the railroad industry’s biggest priorities is safety, noting railroad workers are required by law not to work any more than 12 hours a day. He said railroad workers have to treat the tracks as if there’s movement going on it at any time, and they have to review their hazardous material courses once every year.
White stressed how dangerous the job could be for some railroad workers.
“We have a rule book that’s about three inches thick,” White said. “All the rules that we have in that rulebook were written in blood.”
White said railroad regulations were much less safe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many workers had to sacrifice their limbs, well-being and even their lives for the industry to learn what it does now.
“During that time, before all of these rules came about, there was a lot of deaths,” White remarked. “A lot of people lost arms and legs. All those rules we carry around is because of those guys that sacrificed.”
White said even though the railroad industry is much safer today than it was back then, it still comes with many risks. He said he'd faced several close calls throughout his career, but his greatest regret was losing one of their first-year colleagues several years ago.
“As the engineer, I got someone’s life in my hands at all times,” White expressed. “I’m up there running that engine, and I’ve got a guy on the other end of the train, switching cars and going into customer’s facilities. We’re going to the end of tracks. The main thing is safety, safety, safety.”
Regardless of the close calls and dangers of his job, White said he’s proud of what he does and the people he’s met across the railyard.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people throughout the years,” he said. “Ran a lot of neat trains. I see it like for the past 20 years, I really sort of got outside of the box of a guy from Waxahachie that worked in factories.”
White said the job is dangerous and it comes with many risks. But he wouldn’t be doing anything else.
“When you’re laying in bed at night, and you hear those trains blowing the horns through town, say a little prayer for those guys,” White expressed. “They’re hardworking guys that are trying to do the best they can for their families.”
“It becomes a lifestyle,” he remarked. “The culture of the railroad just gets in your blood.”